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Welfare Bill ‘too soft’ claims Pet Care Trust

AN ANIMAL charity has reacted angrily to an admission by one of the Government’s own lawyers that the only reason it won’t make the worst cases of animal cruelty into criminal offences is because there aren’t enough prison places.

DEFRA barrister Chloe Nash told a London conference on the Animal Welfare Bill last week that in July 2004, when pre-legislative scrutiny work on the Bill had been carried out, the Home Office had been ‘final and adamant’ in rejecting the idea of sending the worst offenders to prison.

The Pet Care Trust was ‘furious’ at this admission and said that the lack of power within the Bill to punish offenders made nonsense out of amending the animal cruelty laws.

According to the PCT, the Government’s failure to impose proper penalties has happened with the agreement of the RSPCA. Sally Case, the RSPCA’s Head of Prosecutions told the same conference: ‘That penalties will be financial rather than custodial is perfectly acceptable to us’.

As for alleged Government plans to give authority figures such as the RSPCA the right to impose on the spot fines under the Police and Justice Bill, Sally Case admitted ‘it was a total surprise [to read it in the Sunday Times 15 October]’.

‘This is not acceptable to the Pet Care Trust and its members and not to the people of Britain,’ said Janet Nunn, Chief Executive of the Pet Care Trust. ‘People in Britain want to see the punishment fit the crime and this will just not happen with the Animal Welfare Bill.’

DEFRA’s admission came within days of the release of a survey, carried out for the Halifax Building Society, which showed that 80% of people think there should be stiffer penalties for crimes against animals.

‘Parliament is sleepwalking into the final stages of the Animal Welfare Bill with the perpetrators of the worst cruelty cases getting off with a fine,’ said Janet Nunn. ‘This cannot be right. It’s certainly not justice in the eyes of the public or pet care professionals.’

‘There have been all kinds of reasons given by the Government to both Houses of Parliament about how it’s not appropriate to make the worst cases of torture and cruelty triable as criminal offences, for which there would be no time limit for bringing a prosecution.’

Nunn concluded: ‘Instead, they’re extending the current six month period for bringing a prosecution to three years for any breach of the new duty of care. This will impose an extra burden of record keeping for the nation’s 10,000 pet care micro-businesses and 20 million households. This is not acceptable even if it’s in the name of helping the government with their prison problem. In this instance, the tail should not be wagging the dog.’

The Animal Welfare Bill was due to pass last Monday (23 October) through the House of Lords at report stage, the penultimate stage before passing finally back to the Commons and onto the statute books. It will replace 21 acts of parliament passed over the last 95 years.

Howver, an RSPCA spokesperson told OUR DOGS: ‘There is a basic error underpinning the Pet Care Trust's press release which states: ‘[the government] won't make the worst cases of animal cruelty into criminal offences because there aren't enough prison places.’

’Animal cruelty is and will continue to be a criminal offence, an offence which carries the maximum possible penalty for cases heard in magistrates courts.

’The RSPCA welcomes increased penalties for animal cruelty as it send a clear message that society will not tolerate the abuse of animals, and hopefully acts as a deterrent to crime.

However, highest on the Society's wish list is for those convicted of animal cruelty to be deprived of keeping other animals, so that they are unable to inflict future harm.’

Currently those found guilty of causing animal cruelty under the Protection of Animals Act 1911 may, at the magistrates' discretion, be jailed for a maximum of six months and/or fined up to £5,000.

However, the RSPCA points out that under the Animal Welfare Bill, the maximum penalty for the offences of causing unnecessary suffering and fighting are a fine of up to £20,000 and/or, once section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is brought in, a maximum sentence of 51 weeks custody plus. Until that section is brought into force, the maximum prison term will remain at six months.

The spokesperson added: ‘The RSPCA believes that magistrates dealing with animal cruelty cases should have a range of sentencing options open to them, including fines and imprisonment.

Custody is, of course, appropriate in certain circumstances, but the Society wants, and has always wanted, the focus to be on safeguarding the future welfare of animals through the improved use of confiscation and disqualification orders.’

Paperwork Burden of New Bill

In June 2006, the Trust presented evidence of the paperwork burden accumulated on two case studies to Lord Rooker for the government, Baroness Byford for the Conservatives and Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer for the Liberal Democrats as spokespeople in the House of Lords and Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of the Better Regulation Executive in June 2006.

For a kennel and cattery, the paperwork would stack 1.62 metres high over three years and there would be issues of data protection and human resource as well as physical storage challenges to be faced, especially by businesses on the high street such as pet shops and grooming salons.

The Better Regulation Executive has yet to respond, showing itself to be as careless as the Bill’s regulatory impact assessment.